Nuclear energy: The Visegrad exception and how to develop It

Defending nuclear energy in Western Europe is almost a faux pas. Even France, the most pronuclear country, has committed itself to reduce the nuclear portion of its electricity mix. Against the odds, the Visegrad countries remain faithful to the atom. If the Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, and Slovaks want to develop their nuclear industries, they should cooperate.

Foto: Creative Commons/ thebmag


When a tsunami hit the Japanese coast two years ago, nuclear energy was on the rise. The Fukushima disaster briefly halted the nuclear renaissance. Japan, which holds the world’s third-biggest reactor fleet, announced a phase-out. Today, only two out of fifty exploitable units are online. Following Japan, part of Western Europe accelerated its nuclear phase-out. Most significantly, Germany declared an immediate shutdown of the oldest reactors, and Italy prolonged indefinitely a halt to construction of new nuclear plants. But, as it turns out, Japan and Western Europe are going against the global trend.

A pronuclear world

After a period of hesitation, many countries reaffirmed their support for nuclear power, according to Ernst & Young. In Europe, new plants are envisaged by the United Kingdom and Finland. Russia, which has 33 reactors, is planning to operate 11 new stations by 2017. India plans to boost the share of nuclear in its electricity mix from the current 2 to 25 percent by 2025. And China is the global leader in building more such plants: it has 28 reactors under construction (currently operating 17).

In 2012, the International Atomic Energy Agency envisaged that the Fukushima accident would slow down the development of nuclear energy, but not reverse it. The pessimistic scenario for 2030 estimated a 28 percent increase of installed capacity (instead of the 35 percent estimated before Fukushima). The optimistic scenario for 2030 predicted a 92 percent rise (instead of 100 percent).

For emerging countries, which fuel the growth, the atom remains a reliable source of energy. Their governments consider it the only credible solution to rising energy demands and for reducing their carbon footprint. Instead of “Yes or no to nuclear?” they ask, “How can its safety be increased?”

The December parliamentary elections in Japan showed that even Tokyo is moving towards this position. The new government is more favorable to restarting the country’s nuclear power plants. Electricity prices are simply too high.

The (radio)active Visegrad

The Visegrad Four is pronuclear, too. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia are either building new plants or plan to do so. Poland, the only V4 country without a commercial reactor, promotes atomic energy, despite its hopes for shale gas. They not only reject a phase-out; they want to construct more reactors.

A Soviet-era legacy, nuclear energy is simply viewed as a trusted source of power in Central Europe. The Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, and Slovaks are wary of the Chernobyl accident, huge public investments, and continued dependence on Moscow for nuclear fuel and maintenance. But for them, the atom remains a symbol of carbon-free, cheap, and secure energy. Energy security may be the most important factor, given their dependence on Russian natural gas.

In the Czech Republic, the 2012-approved national energy strategy sees a rise of the nuclear share in the electricity mix from 33 to 50 percent by 2040. New nuclear plants are to replace the old coal and gas stations, satisfying rising domestic demand and allowing the country to export electricity.

For similar reasons, Hungary’s 2012 energy strategy proposes granting lifetime extensions to existing reactors and suggests considering new ones. Poland, heavily dependent on coal, envisages three reactors by 2035. Slovakia, whose energy appetite is projected to grow, is currently building two new reactors, to be operational by 2015.

Nuclear energy in the Visegrad Four

Installed capacity in 2012 (MWe) Share in electricity production in 2011 (%) Reactors online in 2012 Reactors constructed (projected) in 2012
Czech R.

3 766

33

6

0 (2 by 2023 and 2024)
Hungary

1 880

43

4

0 (2 by 2020 and 2025)
Poland

0

0

0

0 (3 by 2030, first in 2022)
Slovakia

1 816

55

4

2 by 2015 (2 by 2025)

Sources: International Atomic Energy Agency, Nuclear Energy Agency, World Nuclear Association

Thus, it is not surprising that eight months after the Fukushima accident, the four Visegrad presidents promote nuclear energy. “We talked about how using atomic energy is important for us,” Hungary’s Pal Schmitt said at the 20th Anniversary Summit of the Group. “By now, it has no alternative, and therefore we are very dependent on nuclear energy.”

The pronuclear choice is based on a cross-party consensus in Central Europe. Hence, rather than criticizing this choice, this article will explore the options of supporting it through mutual cooperation. After analyzing the challenges faced by the V4, we will look at their current cooperation and, more importantly, how it can be developed.

Challenged by the economic crisis, Fukushima, and nuclear waste

The Visegrad Group faces three types of challenges: political, economic, and technological.

After Fukushima, European public and political opinions towards nuclear power have proven volatile. One of the first European Citizen Initiatives, a new direct democracy tool introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, called for abandoning nuclear energy throughout the European Union. Even if the European Commission rejected it, referring to the Euroatom Treaty, one of the founding treaties of the EU, the message is carried on. The pressure to abandon the atom is particularly strong in Berlin. When the Czech prime minister defended his government’s choice in spring 2012, German Green parliamentarians declared that their country would stop buying electricity produced at nuclear plants. As a consequence, Czech plant operator CEZ dropped on the stock market. Bratislava, which had to close two reactors before EU accession, deals with similar pressures from Vienna.

On the economic side, the V4’s commitment faces a lack of funding and infrastructure. CEZ now wants to sell its 49 percent stake in a joint venture with the Slovak government that should have expanded the Slovak plant Jaslovské Bohunice. In Poland, nuclear energy is competing with the equally capital-intensive shale gas. In the fall of 2012, the chief executive of the state-controlled PGE, responsible for both public investments, said: “These two programs cannot be successful (at the same time), one excludes the other.” As Central Europeans count on new construction to export electricity, the question is where and how. European demand is difficult to estimate due to the economic crisis and energy efficiency policies. The cross-border transmission lines are old and insufficient; the situation is already critical at the V4’s border with Germany and Austria. A report of the four national regulators published by energia.sk in January 2013 explains that the V4’s low-capacity transmission systems are threatened by the German-Austrian electricity that flows through these countries.

Finally, high dependence on nuclear energy creates new technological challenges. In general, each country needs to take lessons from the Fukushima accident. A particular problem is the spent nuclear fuel. The only safe way of getting rid of spent fuel is exporting it or burying it underground for 100,000 years. The 2011 EU directive on radioactive waste and spent fuel management makes it almost impossible to export nuclear waste. Moreover, it obliges EU member states to submit national programs for waste disposal to the Commission by 2015. The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary have no such feasible programs. Yet, experience shows that building repositories for spent fuel is extremely time-consuming and costly. Take Finland, which will be probably the first country in the world to have one by 2020. The Finnish took three decades to develop the technology and they will pay, according to estimates, €3.3 billion for construction and operation. The new fourth-generation reactors could partly solve the problem, producing less spent fuel, but here, too, time and money is needed.

The fragmented Visegrad cooperation …

Despite all the challenges, Visegrad cooperation is rather fragmented.

Declarations from V4 summits mention nuclear energy sporadically. In January 2011 the V4 energy ministers declared “enhancing cooperation in the research of development field of energy, particularly with regards to nuclear energy and coal technologies.” The Polish V4 Presidency Program for 2012/2013 announced that Warsaw “will initiate and endeavor to expand V4 cooperation in nuclear power.”

In spring 2012, the Czechs and Poles took a shot at the European level. According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Czech Republic and Poland, together with France and the United Kingdom, promoted their cause in a common letter to the European Energy Commissioner. They asked him to classify nuclear energy as low-carbon, which would allow it to be subsidized like renewable energies. The reason: both reduce EU’s carbon footprint as required by the EU Energy Roadmap 2050. The capitals denied sending such a letter and the Commissioner refused their alleged demands.

Cooperation is more advanced in economy and infrastructures. The year 2009 saw market coupling (integration of electricity markets) of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Hungary joined in 2012 and the accession of Poland and Romania is being negotiated. Market integration provides new trading opportunities for firms and a remedy for the overloaded transmission lines. But as Pavel Šramko from OKTE (a firm organizing electricity trading) said, the current model is only a “skeleton” of the real East-European integrated electricity market.

Cooperation in research and development rings a bell or two, as well. The four Visegrad countries participate in an international project of a gas-cooled fast reactor called Allegro. The project aims to develop a fourth-generation unit that would increase the efficiency of fuel use and reduce the volumes and toxicity of the spent fuel. In 2010, Czech, Hungarian, and Slovak research institutes announced their willingness to host a demonstrator in one of the three countries. Poland joined Allegro in 2012. The reactor should be operational by 2025. Yet, the financing, which should be resolved this year, is uncertain. Allegro has applied for EU funds.

The other area of cooperation is radioactive waste disposal. In 2009, the EU-funded Support Action: Pilot Investigations on European Regional Repositories (SAPIERR) produced the European Repository Development Organization (ERDO) project. SAPIERR is backed by research organizations from 14 countries, including the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia, with Bratislava and Amsterdam providing coordination. Its basic idea is to explore the feasibility of shared regional geological repositories in Europe. The goal of ERDO, whose members are states, is to establish an agency that would guide such efforts. However, after the first steps towards institutionalization, silence overruled. Some members even formally ceased their participation, like Prague. Instead, Czech research institutions are taking part in a new, Finnish-run project of technology experiments.

… can be improved

Nuclear remains mostly an opaque national affair in the Visegrad countries. The taboo should be overcome and transnational challenges should be treated with transnational measures.

First, the Visegrad countries can devise a common communication strategy to defend nuclear energy at home, among their neighbors, and on the EU level. At home, it is essential to inform local populations of post-Fukushima safety measures. Communicating with neighbors, particularly anti-nuclear Germany and Austria, implies explaining Visegrad’s choice and offering reassurance about safety. This is also important with regard to the prospect of selling nuclear-produced electricity in these markets. In the European debate, they need to promote the atom as the key instrument to meet the EU’s climate targets, to provide affordable energy in the time of crisis, and to reduce Europe’s dependence on imported energy.

Second, market integration should be followed by a capacity increase. The degree of economic integration is dependent on the degree of physical interconnections. A bigger, integrated market can then attract investment for the much-desired new build, and traders seeking to sell electricity on European markets will be more incited to participate. As a Slovak Atlantic Commission 2010 policy paper noted, “foreign companies are looking for investment opportunities in larger markets.” If the V4 capitals add a convincing political commitment and a stable regulatory environment, the Central European electricity market can become a dynamic commercial hub. It would provide more incentives also for intra-Visegrad common investments.

Finally, the efforts towards a fourth-generation reactor and a common waste repository need to be relaunched, integrating all Visegrad countries. If they join forces, the Visegrad countries can lobby for common financing from the EU. Particular attention should be paid to nuclear waste, which remains the Achilles’ heel of nuclear energy. Bratislava, Budapest, and Prague oversee relatively big nuclear industries, but deal with relatively small budgets; pooling them to construct one geological repository could be a sustainable solution. One last field susceptible for fruitful cooperation and commercial opportunities is power plant decommissioning. As Ernst & Young points out, a new international market with decommissioning may arise at a time when there is a global shortage of the necessary technology and skills.

The Visegrad countries can ally with other countries. In Western Europe, they can develop more cooperation with the U.K., and in Scandinavia with Finland. The current position of France and Russia should be reexamined. They are the only countries in the world present on the whole value chain of nuclear energy – from construction to fuel provision and waste management. Yet, today it is Moscow which plays a dominant role in Central Europe and seeks to reinforce it (recently showing interest in building new reactors in Jaslovské Bohunice, Slovakia, and Paks, Hungary). Given that Moscow’s role in the V4’s energy mix is already important, Central Europeans may want to diversify towards Paris.

Whether they choose Moscow or Paris, the key to success is cooperation within the Visegrad Group. If Central Europe wants to sustain its choice of nuclear energy in the muddy European waters, more cooperation is vital. Outside Europe, nuclear is popular and the competition stiff.

Pavol Szalai

Pavol Szalai

is senior editor at Euractiv.sk